The modern word for nature’s breathtaking variety of plants and animals – including those we farm with – is ‘biodiversity’. The word describes the sum total of all living things and the ecosystems they live in. An ‘ecosystem’ is the complex interaction of living things with each other and their environment. Different regions have different ecosystems.
The healthier an ecosystem, the better it can operate and so sustain the correct balance of all the animals and plants that form a part of it. A well-functioning ecosystem provides healthy soil and clean water, for example, both of which are critically important for farmers.
If biodiversity declines, an ecosystem’s ability to provide these also declines. The main aim of conservation, then, is to preserve biodiversity. On the other hand, if biodiversity is maintained as far as possible and the ecosystem is healthy, a farmer will find that healthy soil, clean water, effective pollinators, pest-controlling birds and insects and much else will all be in place.
Obviously, one has to be realistic. Farmers seek to produce food and make a profit, and these goals sometimes conflict with those of conservation. But we have a better understanding nowadays about how agriculture and conservation can co-exist and even benefit each other.
Consider mixed farming, for example. Research shows that large, land-based birds, many of which are endangered, and wildlife in general, do better in mixed farming areas than where there’s intensive cultivation of a single crop. In particular, a mix of grain cultivation and stock farming appears to benefit birds by providing a patchwork of habitats. This is especially true when patches of natural veld are also available nearby. The variety of habitats ensure that birds and other animals have suitable areas for foraging throughout the year.
How to increase biodiversity
- Adopt mixed-farming strategies, preferably by including some stock or game farming.
- Where possible, rotate crops and pastures and let lands lie fallow.
- Use no-till methods to maintain healthy soils.
- Preserve areas of natural veld as far as possible.
How you benefit
Apart from benefiting biodiversity, mixed farming can provide you with an alternative income stream if a crop fails or market conditions change. In addition, farmers who conserve natural habitats and wildlife often find that ecotourism can become a supplementary activity. That might seem unlikely right now, especially if you’re just getting started, but it has worked for many farmers. Why not you?
It’s never too late!
Look after the land and it will look after you – producing good crops or feeding large numbers of livestock. This is true whether you’re a big commercial farmer, or just getting started. But there’s another reason to care for the land: you and your fellow farmers manage 80% of SA’s land. That’s right, four-fifths! It stands to reason that if conservation doesn’t occur on 80% of the land, it can’t succeed in the country as a whole. Truly, farmers are the custodians of our natural heritage.
Fortunately, more and more farmers are beginning to take an interest in conservation and promote its cause on their lands.
Source: Farming for the Future: Farming Sustainably with Nature, by Harrison, J. & Young, D. 2010, Animal Demography Unit, UCT.